I was very pleased to be invited to speak at a meeting for the WA Society of Editors. They asked me to talk about my experience in niche publishing, so this is (basically) what I said
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In some ways, I’ve been editing since I was in high school, when I was on the editorial team that produced our school yearbook. Having said that, I suppose I’d been writing for longer than that, but in the past decade, editing has certainly become my priority – possibly one day I’ll go back to fiction writing (I still do a lot of non-fiction writing), and I’m sure that my editing experience will stand me in good stead when I do!
My ventures into the Australian speculative fiction scene came out of my love of reading. When I was about 19, after a few years of dedication to Stephen King, Dean Koontz and historical romance novels (don’t laugh), a friend handed me Magician by Raymond Feist, which I devoured in two days. He then told me I might enjoy David Eddings (which I did) and I was hooked. It didn’t take me long to make my way though the backlist of those authors and move on through Anne McCaffrey (introduced to me by the owner of my corner shop at the time) and start to investigate Australian authors of spec fic.
I discovered Sara Douglass, Kate Forsyth, Traci Harding and Simon Brown – and I lay the blame for my embroilment in speculative fiction in Australia squarely at the feet of the latter. In his biography in Inheritance, Brown mentioned the Eidolist, which was a well-populated listserv operating at the time. So I joined, and lurked for a while. Not long after, the long-running small press magazine Aurealis was put up for sale by Chimaera Publications. This started a flurry of talk on the Eidolist, about whether interested parties should form a group to take on the magazine, among other things. Then someone suggested that it might be a better idea to start fresh, and form a group to create a NEW magazine, to take on the Australian scene. This struck a chord with many, and we splintered off to undertake further discussion. This led to the formation of the Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-operative, a group I somehow found myself immersed in from the very outset, and which saw me firmly entrenched in Australian spec fic from that point on.
My time at ASIM was pretty much my internship in publishing – I did every role involved in creating a publication that you could do, I’m sure! I slushread, commissioned stories and art, edited, did layout, proofread, organised contracts and payments, marketing, promotions, sales, e-publications and every little thing in between that gets an issue of a magazine from being just an idea, to being in the reader’s hands. The structure of ASIM was both its beauty and its curse – organising anything by committee can be difficult, but for the most part, the support provided by the ever-varying ASIM team meant that you had people to rely on, and also that someone in the group would usually know how to solve a problem. As a learning experience, it was a very good one and has, I think, stood me in good stead in my own publishing ventures. It’s even led me to paying jobs in academic editing, which is a nice sideline!
Being an indie publisher is not an easy road. For every indie press that makes a book that breaks even or, even more rarely, makes a profit, there are dozens, even hundreds, that see money vanish into big boxes of books stacked up in spare rooms and sheds, until the erstwhile owner (or their long-suffering spouse) finally says, “Enough.” It’s fascinating to chart to progress of these publishers, to see them rise and fall, to see the authors who put their faith in them get a start, and read the projects they produce. They continue to emerge, perhaps in even greater numbers in recent years with the advent of E and POD publishing options that make it more cost-effective to produce books, and easier to reach a wider audience. Well, I say “easier”, but what I mean is “possible”, because as the numbers of indie publishers rise, so do the number of self- and vanity publishers, which means the role of the publisher – that of gatekeeper and quality control – is being lost under the white noise. And sometimes it’s very difficult for readers (and authors) to distinguish between an indie press and a vanity one, which has a negative impact on the perception of all independents.
I think this brings us to the part of indie publishing which is the most difficult – it’s not finding the right project, or having the skill to help authors polish their work to the best it can be, or the design skills to produce a quality book, or the money to do a decent print run, and then the tenacity to sell them (although all of those things help). No, I believe that the most important part of being a successful indie publisher is marketing and promotion – getting your books out there in places they can be found and will be purchased. And this is so very, VERY difficult to do.
Not only are our local bookstores closing in droves, not only are the online bookstores being flooded by self-published books that clog up the filters of search engines, not only are the big publishers closing ranks on DRM and ebooks and pricing, all of which makes the indie publisher’s life more difficult, but of course, we try to compete on a shoestring budget. The best way to get into bookstores is to have a distributor. To get a distributor, you need a print run of at least 1000, often more. You also have to sign agreements that almost guarantee you will lose money on the books you send to that distributor, with discounts of up to 70% of RRP necessary for them to take you on. You also run the risk of losses in transit, in the warehouse, and in the end, to pulping, as the contract may give them the right to dump your stock with no returns.
But on the plus side, you suddenly have more exposure than you could ever garner on your own – and if some of the bookshops that use your distributor pick up your book, you are now on shelves you absolutely cannot reach independently, no matter how hard or how long you work at it. And let’s face it – most indie publishers have neither the time (most work at least part-time in a “real world” job!) nor the money to invest in targeting every bookstore in Australia individually. But that often means we don’t have the money to invest in big print runs that may or may not find distribution, and may or may not sell, even if they do. Rock, meet hard place.
But we keep on coming – niche publishers continue to erupt in the market, finding new talent, sometimes finding acclaim and sometimes even finding that very special book that creates a zeitgeist for itself and breaks even, or makes a profit, or even that rarest of beasts, forms the basis of a platform which propels the publisher into the next strata of publishing, with both the time and the money to invest in bigger and better projects.
It so infrequently happens though – not often enough to give the rest of us hope. Yet still new publishers emerge, with new ideas, or new takes on old ideas, and more projects every day. What keeps them coming? It certainly isn’t the money, or the promise of fame. And it’s by no means a relaxing hobby – rather, you tend to spend all your free time (and some of that not free!) working on projects, from slushing to sales. So what else is there?
I guess it has to come down to love – editors and publishers in indie press have to love what they do. The thrill that comes with being the first person to read a new story, discover a new author, to make a new book! It costs money to publish – money that comes out of the indie publisher’s own pocket for the most part, although there have been some very successful crowd-funded projects in the very recent past (it’s all about the signal boosting!). Even if you decide to only run your manuscript through the Smashwords meatgrinder and hope to sell that way, there’s still an investment of time that has to go into a quality product, the money to pay the authors, artists, designers (if you use them), and the money it costs to market – because there are ALWAYS costs.
So we have to do it because we love the process. Some of us may hope to use our experience to step up to another level in publishing, but even that is becoming a distant hope, with the way publishing is teetering on a financial knife edge at the moment, and particularly in Australia, where jobs in the industry have never been prolific. So indie publishing is perhaps our way of expressing our love for books, for writing, and supporting the industry that gives us much joy.
And some indie presses do it so very well – in Western Australia alone you’ll find at least five actively producing small presses dedicated to speculative fiction in various forms. Within the pages of these publications are national and internationally awarded stories, from Ticonderoga’s recent Aurealis Award win for Best Collection to Twelfth Planet’s Washington Small Press Award last year, among many other accolades. I was delighted that FableCroft had two stories on the Aurealis Awards shortlists this year, which is wonderful recognition for a press in only its first year of operations. Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press is heading to World Fantasy Con later this year to be present at the World Fantasy Awards, for which she is shortlisted in the Special Awards – Non-Professional category. It’s a huge achievement for an indie press to be recognised internationally, and one Alisa has worked extraordinarily hard to achieve.
Which brings me to my final point – hard work. That’s what indie press is. We may do it for the love, but in the end, without a lot of hard work and dedication, on top of vision and high standards, niche publishers will stay small, and never be known outside their own little sphere. Put in the elbow grease though, and the sky is the limit.